It seems video games and parents have gotten off on the wrong foot. Somehow, games have gotten a bad reputation, much worse than that of books, television or film. Games are often thought of as addictive, isolating, violent and a waste of time, and are frequently blamed as a reason for unstable behavior.
But now that the National Endowment of the Arts has finally acknowledged video games as a legitimate art form, families are starting to notice what gamers have been saying for years—games are a cool, innovative source of entertainment and cognitive development.
And games are better than ever. Graphics improve with each new installment of a series, and intricate, unique storytelling devices require players to be actively immersed in a plot, taking on the role of both “writer” and “reader,” as game studies researcher James Alberti argues. Games differ from literature, film and television because the players must make choices and think critically about why they are making those choices, because the consequences are immediate. They also must acutely observe the setting, dialogue and characters.
There’s a lot happening in teenagers’ heads when they focus intently on sniping a terrorist or forming a guild of dwarves. Most games require strategy and problem solving skills, and playing on a console is often suggested by pediatricians to help kids improve their hand and eye coordination. Computer gaming has also been used successfully as a type of treatment for children with ADD, ADHD and autism because they allow kids to wander through worlds, make decisions on their own, and revisit levels and puzzles that are complex—all while sitting quiet and focused.
Jane McGonigal, game designer and author of Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, argues that teenagers tend to get “addicted” to games because they are somehow dissatisfied with their reality and seek refuge in a virtual world, looking for tools that they can then apply back to their own lives.
“Games are showing us exactly what we want out of life: more satisfying work, better hope of success, stronger social connectivity, and the chance to be a part of something bigger than ourselves,” she writes. Characters in games represent qualities that teens want—physical strength, a unique identity, and interesting world to explore independently and a set of clear obstacles to overcome. They have the chance to experiment with a personality before adopting the traits they admire in others as their own.
If your teen is old enough to watch shows on cable television, they’re probably not going to be so influenced from a round of Call of Duty that they’ll feel compelled to shoot at the neighbors with an airsoft gun. Games can be gritty and raunchy, but they can paint an honest portrait of war and struggle and support the idea of collaboration.
McGonigal suggests limited your child’s game time to less than 21 hours a week, and encourages parents to get in on the action. Playing with them ensures that you know what kind of media they’re consuming, and you’ll get some bonus points from them for engaging in an activity on their level. The Xbox Kinect, PlayStation Move or Nintendo Wii all offer family games that will also give you a good workout. And you never know—you may find yourself signing up for a World of Warcraft account before you can say “paladin.”